The other side of China

After a reminder from James Fallows, I finally watched “Last Train Home“, a 2009 documentary by Lixin Fan that has won all sorts of awards (and is available on Netflix!). Fan follows an older couple from rural Sichuan as they work in a Guangzhou factory and try to find a way home every Spring Festival to see their children.

In Beijing, there are many reminders that this is a still-developing country, from the crumbled hutongs beside a new skyscraper to the shiny black Audis zooming by an old man riding a decrepit rickshaw. However, I remain sheltered from the 130 million migrant workers, who are mainly working in the factories of Southern China and who are mainly the ones involved in China’s meteoric rise from poverty. (If you are trying to picture 130 million workers, the U.S.’s entire labor force is about 150 million.) These people’s lives straddle the impoverished countryside and the newly rich factory-cities, a concept that seems easy enough to imagine but is actually so much more complex when you witness it firsthand. The Last Train Home offers an intimate look into the personal lives of migrants, which consists of things other than just the abysmal factory conditions conscientious Americans like to focus on.

For what it’s worth, this is the human side of China’s development, which is much more compelling in my opinion than a rising RMB, export statistics and political talking points. It has dramatic consequences, not just for the nation as a whole, but for both the migrant worker and his family back home. For more stories about migrant workers and how going out has transformed their lives and the lives of their families back home, try “Factory Girls” by Leslie Chang or “Eating Bitterness” by Michelle Loyalka.

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